Who, I hear you ask, was W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963)? He was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, writer and editor. Most notably, he was the first African-American to earn a doctorate, eventually becoming Professor of History, Sociology and Economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism. He was also one of the first to advocate nuclear disarmament.
Arguably, the title of Jeffers’ début novel is a little misleading. Claiming, in her Acknowledgements to be a direct descendant of the great scholar, Du Bois does not feature as a character in his own right. Jeffers merely employs his words as a kind of literary glue to bind the various themes and strands of the book together: the history of slavery in America, racism, identity, societal segregation and the oppression of African-American and indigenous people by whites. Each section or major turning point in the story is prefaced by a brief extract of one of Du Bois’ writings. This is perhaps the most salient one of all:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’ (1903)
Set in Georgia during the period from the early 1980s to 2007, we first meet Ailey Pearl Garfield as a fourteen-year-old high school student. The youngest daughter of Geoff Garfield, a light-skinned physician, and Belle Driskell Garfield, a Southern school teacher, she learns early the social conventions of her people and how she is expected to behave. It’s what is known amongst African-Americans as ‘home-training’. Ailey’s is the main narrative voice in the novel as she tells the reader the history of her family, her grandparents and great grandparents. Alternate sections of the novel relate the lives and tribulations of her ancestors and a group of slaves and their masters from whom, the reader eventually learns, Ailey is a direct descendant.
Here Jeffers highlights an important concept of property ownership during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, explaining the different rules applied to blacks, whites and indigenous peoples:
“Land occupied a space in white pride, and a White man without land was no better than the Black man he had enslaved or the Indian he had stolen from through murder and connivance and lack of sympathy. White men had laughed at the anguish of the displaced Creeks; sooner or later every conqueror laughs at his victim. That’s what makes victory sweet and, more than that, justified.”
There is a lot of pain and sorrow in this tale, but also great joy and optimism, as we follow Ailey through her school and college days into adulthood and come to understand, sympathise (and perhaps even empathise on certain levels) with those she interacts with. Along the way, she has to cope with the deaths of, first, her beloved father, and then, her sister, Lydia. Coming from a mixed-race background she struggles with her identity, battling with the prejudices she faces at one of the schools she attends where the students are from largely white well-off families. Extremely bright, achieving top grades in all her subjects, Ailey feels conflicted and confused and, for a long time, she is unable to decide what she wants to do with her life. It is only when she reluctantly takes a summer job as research assistant to her history professor, Dr. Belinda Oludara, and becomes fascinated by the papers and articles on African-American slavery she has categorise and file that she sees her own future as a historian. Here Ailey reflects on what she reads as she sorts through Dr. Oludara’s papers:
“No matter how dry the prose of the books and articles, I could see the people in my imagination. Their old fashioned clothes of heavy wool and boots that buttoned up. I poured voices into their mouths and rounded the words that might emerge. But they weren’t characters. They were real people I couldn’t turn away from.”
Ailey is in her thirties when she finally enrols at graduate school in North Carolina to take a postgraduate degree in African-American colonial history, before going on to also do a PhD for which she researches the history of her own family. The information she uncovers is as revealing about what her forebears endured as it is distressing. Not only that, but Ailey discovers connections she hadn’t been aware of before embarking on her doctorate. As she sits in the university library sifting through archived documents and photographs she is overcome with emotion:
“I thought of the pain of my ancestors who’d been slaves, perhaps even sold. I put my hands over my face to hide my shame.”
The college which Ailey had previously attended had been built on ground that had once been a plantation. She recalls the day Dr. Oludara had taken her class to a particular spot where the institution’s legacy could still be seen. Ailey remembers:
“The place where the blood of slaves had soaked into the ground was darker than the rest, even though this land is a red dirt place. After all these years that bloody spot was still there. That was a horrible moment, full of pain.”
But there is irony, too, about her African-American culture. Despite the passing of time, and it now being the twenty first century, some of the old ideology has not changed. There is still a legacy of inequality in the rules governing family life. Her uncle tells her:
“When a negro leaves the house he doesn’t understand that he leaves his wife alone. She is the one who does the back-breaking work to keep the house clean. She raises his children. And that’s only if he earns enough money to make sure she doesn’t have to work. If he doesn’t, she leaves her children with her mother or grandmother and dressing up, too, goes out to make money as a school teacher. Or, more likely, she works as a domestic in the white folks’ kitchen, or out in the fields right beside her husband.”
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is 800 pages long, but the narrative never becomes tedious or uninteresting. There are a few repetitions, but these occur when Jeffers relates certain events from the perspective of different characters and therefore their recurrence does not feel like overwriting or poor editing. With this novel the author throws a welcome light on a vastly underreported part of American history and it is, thus, an outstanding contribution to the already rich canon of historical fiction.
Any Cop?: WOW — just WOW! This is the best novel of any genre I’ve read since Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in 2010. Absolutely stunning. Highly recommended!